By: Katie Sundstrom 

The 2013 Minnesota Library Association Conference was
outstanding this year; with so many great sessions, it was hard to pick just
one to talk about for the blog.  However,
due to library patrons directly asking me “So, how do iPads and eBooks and the
like affect my child’s learning to read?” I figured that would be the most
important session to share the information from.

“Screen Time
and Early Literacy Development” was presented by Kathy Kleckner, who promises
to have her slides submitted to MLA for uploading to the website soon.  I highly recommend downloading them when they
do finally appear.  Until that happens,
you will just have to get by on this little summary.
To begin
with, we have to admit that this is a fairly new field with limited research; apps
and ebooks claiming to help teach early literacy haven’t been around all that
long, so we don’t currently have any great 10-year studies to fall back
on.  However, we do have years of
research on other forms of screen time, such as TV, and there are more recent,
short-term studies, on all these new-fangled devices.  Putting these together, we have a fairly good
idea of the effects of screen time on early literacy development.
So, we know
that the three most positive influences on child development are:
Face-to-face interaction with other human beings
Manipulation of the physical world
Open-ended free Play
Now, think about how screen time affects these three
factors.  If a child is plunked in front
of a TV screen and left to watch “Baby Einstein” on repeat for three hours,
that child is not receiving any face-to-face interaction with other people, and
likely isn’t learning anything, no matter how ‘educational’ the marketing
claims the program to be.  Secondly, if a
child is always interacting with a touch screen device, then that child is not
directly interacting with the rest of the world.  Sure, you can play the “tea party app” on
your iPad, but this is no way helps your child learn the weight and feel of a
real object, or how it fits into the larger world around him/her.  Even more startling is the fact that, with
the advent of the touch-screen, children are required less and less to develop
the fine motor skills required to manipulate objects with their hands – can you
imagine never learning how to hold a pencil? 
Then there is the fact that, no matter how entertaining a computer
program might be, it is still just that – a computer program – a jumble of 1’s
and 0’s that do exactly what they are programmed to do, nothing more and
nothing less.  In a normal play
situation, a child’s imagination will run rampant; have you ever played a game
with a kid without them changing up the rules on you?  Well, a computer game just doesn’t allow this
kind of free-range thinking.  In the end,
computer programs are not in line with any of the three most important aspects
of child development.
Studies have
shown that there are no good ways around these facts either.  It has been proven that a video of a child’s
own mother trying to teach the child something is still significantly less
effective than the child’s mother teaching the same exact thing to the child in
person.  Electronics simply cannot
replace the need for a real person in a child’s life.
According to
the American Academy of Pediatrics, due to there being no research proving the
positive value of screen time, and in fact plenty of research showing the
negative effects of screen time on children, they recommend 0 hours of screen
time for children two and under, and at best 1-2 hours of screen time per day
for children ages 3-5.  You could liken
the recommendation to that of doctors talking about candy – it is rampant in
society so one can’t get away from it, but it should still just be a small,
occasional dessert and not your main meal.
For the
parents who do still want to get recommendations for apps for their children,
however, you can send them to the iTunes “Kids” category, the Amazon AppStore,
or to Google Play.  For reviews of apps,
a reasonable resource is Common Sense Media, so long as the patron is then reminded
that the reviews are mainly written by journalists, and not child educators.
One other
thing to remind parents of is to make sure they disconnect from their devices
on occasion as well.  Studies have shown
that toddler injuries have noticeably risen due to the parents and/or care
givers being distracted by their Smart Phones, Tablets, and so on.  Also, there is a noticeable disconnect in
that, while parents surveyed believe that they are still paying attention to
their children, kids have a strong tendency to see a parent as believing the
electronic device is more important than them. 
Children are feeling unloved.
Mind you,
this isn’t to say that there are absolutely no good points about electronic
media.  As long as a parent is actively
interacting with the child while using the device, it can still be a useful
teaching tool; just make certain you aren’t using screen time as a babysitter,
as many parents do.  Also make sure that
you utilize those fun electronic devices as only one teaching tool in a much
larger arsenal; of course an interactive e-book is a lot of fun, but the child
still needs to learn how to manipulate a real book.  And if you meet a parent who worries about
waiting too long to introduce his/her child to an electronic device in this
world of everything being online, gently remind the parent that studies have
proven that children who don’t use an electronic device in their first couple
years of life are just as capable of understanding and fully interacting with
the device at a later age as those children who were raised on the devices
since birth; in fact, the child with less screen time at a younger age is
better prepared for school and life in general.
If you are
interested in reading further into this topic, a few suggested resources are:
Screen Time by Lisa Guernsey
Digital Childhood by the Journal of
The Elephant in the Living Room by
Dimitri A. Christakis
How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
The Shallows by Nicholas Carr
The Big Disconnect by Catherine